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Atheism And The Concept Of Enlightened Self-Interest
"It is as impossible for a society to be formed and be durable without self-interest as it would be to produce children without carnal desire or to think of eating without appetite, etc. It is love of self that encourages love of others, it is through our mutual needs that we are useful to the human race. That is the foundation of all commerce, the eternal link between men. Without it not a single art would have been invented, no society of ten people formed.” - Voltaire
The rules of behavior are the same for the religious as they are for the rest of us, and when it comes to ethics, religion has nothing to do with how those rules govern human beings. Ethics and morality come to us through the evolutionary process, and the only choice we have in the matter is how we act out. Human emotion is contagious, and we feed off of the emotions of those who surround us and according to whatever experiences we are having, remembering or anticipating. We are happy when we are in joyful situations and we are sad when in miserable ones. As with many animals, we tend to form strong interpersonal bonds, but unlike many animals, we find ourselves being satisfied while simultaneously satisfying others. When one observes the social behavior of other primates, it soon becomes evident of our evolutionary moral and ethical behavior.
The study of morality and ethics involve our problem solving mechanisms, and the only thing that makes this ethics and morality such controversial subjects is the complexity of today's world, mainly the infusion of religious belief into our societies. True enough, our heredity does control some of our general behavior, but our ability to think, reason and adaptively learn was activated by circuits that had been evolutionally hard-wired. Our instincts sometimes serve us well, but life in the post-modern world renders our instincts more and more inadequate with each passing generation, and this difficulty is becoming exponential.
Just a couple thousand years ago we had no understanding where thunder and lightning came from, but today we are building complex machines such as the Large Hadron Collider. However, ancient dogmas are still clung to with the tenacity of an angry pit-bull, in spite of the fact that the Ten Commandments are the moral counterpart of rubbing two sticks together to make fire. It is because so many of these superstitions are held to as reality that there is a general stagnation of adaptation amongst our species. Propelling a two-million space shuttle into orbit required some change and adaptation to what we knew about mechanical flight. The same holds true with morality and ethics. Religious morality as taught by the Judeo/Christian belief system is a throwback to an early stage of our evolution as social beings. Basically, we are trying to launch the space shuttle with a campfire
The fact is that god can no longer be the source of morality. We must rely on enlightened self-interest. Cooperating with others in a selfless, altruistic way to maximize the intensity and duration of personal gratification is a two-way street and demands reciprocity. This concept, along with justice to determines fairness, allows cooperation to operate at maximum efficiency. The desire for personal happiness, the happiness of others, justice and cooperation is the only moral and ethical formula that will allow the advancement of our species. Religion and it's accompanying unnatural degradations, bigotries and intolerances are the result of vain attempts by ignorant men of long ago to accommodate human needs by basing moral and ethical behavior on the perceived commands and desires of mythical deities with bad attitudes. Religious morality is counter-productive to the survival of our species.
If we do not plant our ethics in the improvable and adaptable soil of science, natural selection and our own willful ignorance will insure our demise in short order.
Al Stefanelli - Georgia State Director, American Atheists, Inc.